Arise Academy charter decides to fight back

Briana Estero adjusts her cap as she prepares for Arise Academy's graduation ceremony in June. She was one of 18 students to graduate from the nation's first charter school geared specifically toward the needs of foster children.
Briana Estero adjusts her cap as she prepares for Arise Academy's graduation ceremony in June. She was one of 18 students to graduate from the nation's first charter school geared specifically toward the needs of foster children. (MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 04, 2014

The attendance officer at Arise Academy Charter High School in West Oak Lane was concerned when a junior with spotless attendance missed school.

Administrators made calls and found out that the agency that runs the group home where Affrika Clarke, 18, lived had abruptly moved her and her housemates in May to a motel in Fort Washington because of bedbugs.

But the group home but would not transport her to school from the new location. So principal Taneisha Spall and another administrator picked up Clarke and drove her back and forth for a few days until she returned to her group home in Germantown.

Arise CEO Roberta Trombetta said such attention is the norm at the nation's first charter school for teens in foster care. But its future is in doubt. The Philadelphia School Reform Commission is considering closing the charter because of academic, financial and management problems.

Arise did not participate in an SRC hearing on its fate in March, but Trombetta said the school is fighting to remain open to help Clarke and others stay in school and graduate.

"We don't feel that for the kids we see every day, that there is an alternative," Trombetta said at Arise's last day of the school year last week.

"I can definitely say that Arise has done a lot for me, even though we've had our ups and downs," Clarke said.

With a laugh, Clarke added that the staff was constantly "bugging me about everything I do. . . . 'Do this, do this.' But that made me a better person. They made me even care about school."

Denna Moore-Butler, 17, ticked off some of the schools she had attended before arriving at Arise last November. She went to Fels High School in the Northeast before fighting and other disciplinary problems landed her at Boone, an alternative school in North Philadelphia. She also spent time in several residential programs.

Last month, she was the valedictorian at Arise's graduation ceremony at Temple University.

"I grew up," said Moore-Butler, who plans to attend Lincoln University. "You have to grow up as you get older, and be more mature and responsible."

In a six-hour hearing in March, the district officials described a litany of problems that they said warrant closing the charter, which has 84 students. The district said Arise has been beset with truancy, absenteeism, and a high dropout rate, and has never met state academic standards. The school was behind in paying its bills and had run deficits for three years.

The school, which opened in 2009 in Center City, moved to West Oak Lane last year.

Rather than spend money on lawyers for the hearing when the SRC was weighing its fate, Arise did not participate.

But based on encouraging results from the school year just ended and the commitment of staff and supporters, Arise is taking advantage of a 30-day public comment period to make its case for staying open. The comment period ends July 7.

"We decided that given the success we have had and the challenges the School District is having, that our kids will suffer" without Arise, said Stephen Wanner, president of the Arise board. "We feel focused on building for the future."

Trombetta pointed out that the district's case against Arise was based on its record through June 30, 2013. She and her management team arrived at Arise only last fall with a mission of turning it around.

"We feel that we have some results that we want to talk about this year," Trombetta said. "I think something good happened here this year."

Arise is submitting letters of support and data to the SRC to show improved attendance and academic performance. It also reported that bills are being paid on time and that the school's finances have been righted with the help of $1 million Arise raised from supporters.

Trombetta said Arise is especially proud that 21 of its 23 seniors graduated last month.

Most students at Arise are in the foster-care or the juvenile-justice system. Some have been homeless; others have moved from place to place. Research has found that students in the child-welfare system have gaps in their schooling and often have poor reading skills because they have bounced from placement to placement.

Spall said Arise students are challenged in many ways.

"One of the things we learned early is that if we don't have the ability to support our students around their emotional and social-service needs, there is going to be the difficulty with the academics," said Spall.

Karen Ayers, who has taught science at Arise for four years, said she saw improvements. "This year is more organized," she said. "Our attendance is steady. There's an upward movement."

Carla Brooks, who just finished her second year teaching math, added: "I felt like we knew more of the students' backgrounds this year and what was going on with them outside of school."

The SRC will review the comments and data, as well as the hearing officer's report, before it votes on whether to give Arise a new five-year charter.

No matter what actions are taken, Arise will open this fall at least. It's also planning for the future.

"Our private donors are committed to supporting us as we navigate these next couple of years," Trombetta said. "But we're planning for five years."


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